Teacher Tip: Immediate improvement in Student Cooperation

A while ago I wrote about the value of clearly articulated criteria for success as an aid to student achievement. The logic of the argument is simple. Students often do not know how to differentiate higher- from lower-quality work (which shouldn’t surprise teachers, but it does). By explicitly showing exemplars of good work, by working through examples in class, by sharing the scoring rubric in advance, students are able to follow the models and improve the quality of their own work. Not only is the logic impeccable, the empirical evidence supports this as one of the most successful changes in practice that a teacher can make.

One wonders, then, whether the same is true of student behavior. Is it really the case that students misbehave because they don’t know that it’s wrong? Well kind of. Yes, even small children know that they shouldn’t do lots of things, such as biting, hitting, interrupting, etc. But knowing a list of things that are wrong is not the same thing as knowing how to behave. Let me explain.

Volume of a snowman

Teachers love to caricature the secondary mathematics classroom where the daily routine is inevitably

  1. Take up yesterdays’ homework.
  2. Review problem areas.
  3. Teach today’s lesson.
  4. Work through sample problems.
  5. Students work on today’s assignment in their desks.

We know that many classrooms go through this routine with very little variation day in and day out. We also know that many teachers (secretly or openly) despise this routine as mind-numbing, creativity-killing assembly-line industrial revolution education. I get that. But have you ever stuck your head inside a classroom where this routine works well? Students listen. They ask questions. They do their work. Against all our stereotypes, they appear to be engaged in this work. How is this possible? Where’s the group work? Where’s the innovation? Where’s the 21st century learning?

Of course the answer is that there isn’t group work. Or innovation. Or 21st century learning (whatever that is). Yet this kind of arrangement often works very well. And that really annoys the critics.

Allow me to float a hypothesis. These classrooms are successful because from the point of view of the student they are predictable. At every moment of every class each student knows what is happening, why it is happening and what s/he is expected to do. And this is very powerful. When the student knows what to do, there is a much higher chance of it being done than otherwise. There is still lots of room for variation in this structure, and some teachers are significantly more successful than others for a number of reasons, but the predictable, well understood flow of the class makes it easy for students to cooperate.

Early in my teaching career we had a visiting jazz band playing for our students (grades 7-9). After talking to my class I realized that most of them had little to no experience with jazz and almost none had ever attended a live jazz performance. So we spent some time learning about how audiences behave at jazz concerts. Some things are obvious—keep talking to a minimum, don’t run around, listen to the music—and that can be covered in a minute. Yes, even if it’s obvious it’s worthwhile to get everyone to agree to the basic codes of behavior. The students did not know, however, when to cheer or applaud. Those who’d been to rock concerts (even with parents) knew one set of norms; those who’d been to the symphony knew another set of norms; everyone needed to know what to do here. Applaud after a solo. If you liked the solo a lot, make a bit more noise. Suffice it to say, my class behaved wonderfully, mainly because they knew exactly what was expected of them.

I learned to push the idea further. When you walk out of the class for, say, an assembly, tell the students beforehand precisely what you’ll do. I will lead. Sally will close the door behind us, and make sure everyone is between her and I. When we get to the gymnasium, we will sit together as a class. As with the jazz, the norms for the day are outlined. And it works. They know what to do; they’ve agreed in advance to do it, and they can help each other to do what is expected. This is extremely important on field trips, where often you see chaos at the buses. Let everyone know in advance exactly how everything will play out. They will know what to do. And they will do it. If YOU don’t know in advance, you can ad lib (you’re and adult after all); your students can’t. Don’t let this happen.

You don’t need to tightly regulate every minute of the day. But it is definitely in your—and your students’—best interest to remove behavioral ambiguity. Yes we want them to self-regulate. But that’s a matter for life-long learning. It aint gonna happen in the course of a single school year.


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